Books: “Travel as a Political Act”
Today as I was volunteering and getting to share the latest in humpback whale information at the Maui Ocean Center, one group – a mom and her four daughters – seemed particularly interested. Most people at the Ocean Center come to see the many beautiful fish and other sea creatures, and I get to say a few facts as they pass by. But for this particular group, I got to tell about why the humpbacks don’t eat while they are in Hawaii, how the male humpback whales have the most complex acoustical display of any in the animal kingdom, and more. Since I could hear a slight accent, I asked the mom and girls where they were from — Saudi Arabia! Uncovered, unescorted, all speaking English well (and of course, Arabic, and they are learning French); the mom says that the women drive; the girls are learning guitar too, and tomorrow, they are taking hula lessons at their hotel. The mom said that life in Saudi Arabia isn’t really as it is portrayed in the news. I asked if they were afraid of traveling in the U.S. They said, “No.” They are having a wonderful time and find everyone friendly. They see the sensational news as just the news. I would have loved getting to know them.
That seeking out of people, especially ones from cultures much different than his own is what Rick Steves shares in his book Travel as a Political Act, which offers many significant insights. For instance, in describing his time in Iran, Rick Steves notes,
“It’s not easy finding a middle ground between the ‘Great Satan’ and the ‘Axis of Evil.’ Some positions (such as President Ahmadinejad denying the Holocaust) are just plain wrong. But I don’t entirely agree with many in my own government, either. Yes, there are evil people in Iran. Yes, the rhetoric and policies of Iran’s leaders can be objectionable. But there is so much more to Iran than the negative image drummed into us by our media and our government.
I left Iran impressed more by what we have in common than by our differences. Most Iranians, like most Americans, simply want a good life and a safe homeland for their loved ones. Just like my country, Iran has one dominant ethnic group and religion that’s struggling with issues of diversity and change–liberal versus conservative, modern versus traditional, secular versus religious. As in my own hometown, people of great faith are suspicious of people of no faith or a different faith. Both societies seek a defense against the onslaught of modern materialism that threatens their traditional ‘family values.’ Both society are suspicious of each other, and both are especially suspicious of each other’s government.
When we travel–whether to the ‘Axis of Evil’ or just to a place where people yodel when they’re happy, or fight bulls to impress the girls, or can’t serve breakfast until today’s croissants arrive — we enrich our lives and better understand our place on the planet. We undercut groups that sow fear, hated, and mistrust. People-to-people connections help us learn that we can disagree and still coexist peacefully.
Granted, there’s no easy solution, but surely getting to know Iranian culture is a step in the right direction. Hopefully, even the most skeptical will appreciate the humanity of 70 million Iranian people. Our political leaders sometimes make us forget that all of us on this small planet are equally precious children of God. Having been to Iran and meeting its people face-to-face, I feel this more strongly than ever” (p. 192-193).
Wherever you are, find someone of a different culture–listen, reflect, and learn. Talk to people with accents; you are likely to be glad when they share something of their lives.
If you can’t go traveling tomorrow, get Rick Steves’ Travel as a Political Act.
Happy traveling; happy reading. Aloha, Renée
Banner photo: Rick Steves with schoolgirls in Iran.